After reading Steven Denning’s article, “The Surprising Reasons Why America Lost Its Ability To Compete,” based on his reactions to a Harvard study, my first thought was about the need to discuss leadership.
Please take a look at the article and study for yourself if you are able. The gist of Denning’s piece is that top American corporate leaders do not see themselves responsible for the loss of this country’s global competitiveness. The fix, he says, is going to be enormously challenging, requiring a full-scale paradigm shift from focus on short term profits and shareholder value to an emphasis on building customer-centered, truly sustainable organizations. To do so will require a deeper understanding and appreciation for a system that includes society as a whole, not just business in isolation. There’s nothing easy about the results of the study or Steve’s reactions. It’s like watching the slow collision of tectonic plates. At one level, it’s all an abstraction; at another it’s about the earthquakes around the corner, the sinkholes that may open up and swallow our homes and livelihoods.
The article and study, however, are not what this post is about. Rather, it is about about the world we all seem to be living in now, one radically different than the one we knew only a few short years ago, about the more intimate question of what people are experiencing these days and the system they are operating within at ground level. It’s one thing to decry the principles of short-term profits; it’s another to go to the mailbox in fear. And what ties those things together is the idea that leadership might exist, might somehow rise out of the very sense of powerlessness that seems to grip many. The opposite of that leadership hope is the experience of survival.
What I hear behind the scenes, in the hallways and parking lots these days are questions. Where are they going? Where are they taking us? Do they even know? Can they ever agree? What’s in it for them seems to be driving us and I’m scared.
What’s clear is that the contract seems to have been changed — again. More than ever, people are learning to see themselves as commodities, as pawns, taught they must fend for themselves and yet be happy and optimistic about a world in which the sense of threat has been amplified beyond reason and their views, opinions and experiences mean even less. The idea of an inclusive we-based organization seems farther off than ever before. Big tides are carrying us to new places…and maybe right over the falls while studies are done and articles are written describing the winners and losers, arguing conservative and liberal philosophies, blaming the government, blaming the greedy capitalists. And while everything stalls out, who is affected? Whose life is in the vise-grip of anxiety?
Leadership is a term that touches everything in the workplace and is the widest, strongest bridge between people and the systems they work within. It’s also a term that touches the context of organizations, meaning the culture of the society in which enterprises are “nested,” and the conditions of that context. Just so, talking about leadership is absolutely essential when times are this tense and people feel this afflicted.
Now, I’m not talking about some highly confidential, centripetal exchange as part of a retreat for the senior management team, or some very controlled, intellectually watered down conversation about leadership that is part of a management training program. This isn’t the one with case-studies and Theories X and Y, and a shallow list of do’s and don’ts. It’s the one that’s really open, that’s invited by those who are in the leadership roles asking what others see about them and leadership of the enterprise.
I don’t know of many leaders that have the courage to convene and follow-through on such broad conversations and then using them as catalysts for meaningful change. In my career, I’ve certainly met a few, but the majority have not been that brave or connected to systems thinking. Their hesitations to have the conversation, as I have heard them, include:
• “It would be unclear what the purpose of the conversation would be”
• “We don’t have time now”
• “It will just turn into a gripe session”
• “It could be embarrassing or painful”
• “Staff are already doing this — there’s no problem with people speaking up”
• “Others’ emotions could surface. We’d lose control”
• “It would lead to tension, discord, conflict and blaming, creating a mess”
• “It won’t do any good”
• “Why make people uncomfortable?”
• “We don’t do touchy-feely”
• “This is not our mission — we’re not responsible for the Recession”
These are stated as personal reservations, but they also turn out to be very common rationales across many organizations, making them cultural and therefore systemic reasons why open conversation about leadership is not as possible as it needs to be. Make no mistake, these statements represent genuine concerns that cannot be magically dismissed. People need tons of support to begin to face this stuff and decide for themselves how best to proceed, how best to exercise their courage.
The system, it turns out, is adaptable, but only when it is discerned for what it is: self-referential, self-protective, and, above all, personal. In my experience, you can’t get to that layer unless you examine things holistically and if you want to do that well and in a way that will actually induce collaborative change, you can’t just analyze to find and point out the contradictions. There are plenty of them to find, but feedback alone and particularly the kind of feedback that cynically points out every hypocrisy, is never enough. If you really want change, you must do that discernment work in an environment where genuine care and support for the human beings in the room is pre-eminent. You must show your deep respect and care for the people who are there as individuals, as members of teams, as part of a common, shared-in enterprise. You must show concern for the whole system, and all of society in which you operate. Many of us know how to do the cynical analysis part, the point-out-the-hypocrisy part, but care for the human community isn’t yet a full part of the platform.
The thing about such leadership conversations, including the potential fears that go with them, is that they are about helping us see what we are actually part of and where we participate and help create what we’ve got, for good or ill. It’s about building understanding together and deciding together how best to challenge and change the conditions of our work and our common society. A hierarchy, by comparison, is about an elite that does not have to care or need to know what it participates in, that all too often is isolated from real-world impacts on real people, that retains power precisely through the unconsciousness that goes with the power.
Just so, Denning’s article is a small part of macro-level leadership conversation, and about the major overhaul that’s going on right now in the way we think about “business” and society. We are so lucky to have this opportunity to talk about it because free speech is valued here and after all, it’s an overhaul we are all part of. But the macro conversation is not enough. It also needs to happen locally, here and now in our own organizations, and in a very open-ended way. Leaders, us, you and I need to convene the conversation. It’s about ourselves and the organizations we are guiding. The conversations need to be as inclusive as possible. Maybe that means Board members and entry level associates in the same room. Maybe it’s people who applied for jobs and didn’t get them. Maybe it’s hearing from customers who didn’t get what they came for. And maybe it’s just the folks across the hall in that other department who we’ve never met.
And always the questions can be the same, “How are we — as leaders — doing? How is it going for you? What should we talk about together? What problems have we got? Have we caused? What are we missing that we need to know and can work on with you?”
In doing so, if it’s at all real, it’s likely there will be conflict, blame, maybe even embarrassment in the conversation. Maybe it will feel like the wrong stuff to be working on, a poor use of our time. Maybe it will feel like just a lot of unresolved gripes. Maybe we won’t feel prepared. Maybe people will get upset, tense and reactive; maybe as leaders we will begin to feel out of control. Maybe unearthing our real assumptions and beliefs — the ones we hear ourselves express in the moment — will just create discord and conflict and anxiety and maybe it’s going to feel like it won’t do anybody any good at all. Perhaps it will just make us and others squirm because it is too much about our feelings, our relationships with one another, and our battling values. But that’s how, after all, a system is most likely to see itself and understand itself, by going into the real exchange that violates every one of the systemic reasons listed above for not having it.
Thus the need for extraordinary care for all who engage, for love and authenticity, and the desire to create safety while taking the risk personally to tread in awkward places.
And what’s the outcome of this conversation? The deepest possible affirmation of what we can do and be together. And work…hard work…to address the needed changes.
If we don’t have this conversation, if we don’t ever really enter the forest, thick as it is, choosing instead simply to avoid and numb out what’s happening, it’s pretty clear what we will lose. You can call that anything you want but I think in the end it’s about the loss of people, of the human spirit, of human being. It’s about something colder and more impersonal and more disempowering than ever coming into the workplace and making that an excuse for what is. All of which is to say we have to decide whether to open ourselves, reveal ourselves and our vulnerabilities, get stronger and lead — or not — like a bear contemplating biting into a bee hive. The bear inevitably will get stung, but that’s also the only way the bear will ever get the honey.
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